Sunday, October 12, 2008

Emails from Bamyan, Afghanistan (Part V)

Monday, 1 March 2004

10th Day of Muharram (UN Official Holiday)

Life in the Province was very peaceful and simple. After enjoying the good weather in the daytime, the temperature dropped at night and there was no other form of activities at all. Silence and darkness engulfed the whole village like a ghost town.

On the first night, I spent the night with Homa and an Afghan family. It was really one of the most uncomfortable nights for me. We were all supposed to be accommodated at the UN Habitat office but Homa insisted that she wanted to stay with her friend. I was willing to stay back in UN Habitat but she was worried about me being the only woman among a crowd of boisterous men, which was kind of ridiculous because I have been the only woman in our UN accommodation many times when Yumi and Jodi are away for their R & R.

But anyway, she insisted and I finally complied not knowing how much torture I would endure later on in the night. I was really apprehensive about giving unnecessary burden to the family as I know they might not have an extra room to accommodate us. Homa insisted that this family has 2 rooms in their house.

This family consists of a husband and wife, 1 daughter and 4 sons. When I entered a room in the house, everyone was there. The wife started cooking in the same room and we just sat and drank “chai” (tea). It was a warm and comfortable room; carpeted and filled with cushions on all four corners of the room. This is a typical Afghan room with no chairs or tables at all.

Everyone just sit on the floor to eat. This all-purpose room is transformed into a bedroom for the whole family at night. We had dinner and then proceeded by small family chats. The children turned on the TV and started watching a Hindustani movie which had no subtitle or even Shakh Rukh Khan. The neighbouring children started coming into the room to watch the movie as I believe this is the only family who is well off enough to have a generator and VCD player.

The adults started having a heated discussion which I believe on Islam. Homa made no attempt to translate for me as I made no attempt to participate in the discussion. I was just so tired from the long journey and a day’s work in the village, all I wanted to do was to have a place to lay my head and sleep. I was nearly falling asleep when the host started laying out pillows and blankets in the room for me. I was getting nervous by that time as I was beginning to be convinced that there was no extra room, that the whole family; father, son, neighbours were all to sleep in the same room that night.

I politely told them that I was unable to sleep in the room with so many people watching me; hoping and praying that they would ask me to retire to the much-doubted second room by now. But it was not to be. They left me there and continued with their conversation much to my frustration. I was so close to calling Phillip on the hand radio to come and rescue me. (By that time, my relationship with Philip has improved tremendously. He turned up to be a really nice and sweet guy.) All I wanted to do was just to leave and at the same time continuously thinking about that one room I could have all to myself in UN Habitat.

I was seriously contemplating with myself to make that call or not. Then I realized it was too late as it would have been extremely rude and unacceptable to accept an invitation to stay and then leave in the middle of it. So, I was really upset and angry with Homa for “tricking” me into going there. As much as I appreciated the hospitality and generosity extended to me but in effect, the whole invitation was insufferable to me. I was trapped. I hated feeling obligated towards anything and usually I could find a way out but this time I was simply trapped.

Then, like a child, I tugged on Homa’s sleeve and asked her whether we were going to have a separate room to sleep that night. I was determined that if I had to sleep with the whole family, I would leave whether I was going to upset them or not. I reasoned that it was not my fault that I was given empty promises because if I had known earlier I would have declined the invitation. It wasn’t because I wanted to have my own room or did not like to share a room with the Afghans; I seriously feel uncomfortable sleeping in the same room with a bunch of male strangers. It was simply an unacceptable thing for me and if they expected us to fulfill their cultural conditions, I would expect them to respect my own cultural expectations as well.

So, anyway, Homa told me that the present room we were in was to be our room that night and the male members would be sleeping in another room. It was a consolation for me to know that but since that room was also the main “common” living hall, I had to wait for the movie to finish and the conversation to end. So, I sat there like a statue for hours before I finally got to lay my head down and sleep. That night, I swore never ever to accept invitations to stay over with an Afghan family again. For me, it was just the most impractical and uncomfortable arrangements for both parties. The Afghans are very hospitable people and would go to all length to serve us which makes me really uncomfortable. While they may be filled with good intentions, it may not always receive the same level of gratitude.

So, the next night, I had my way. Despite insisting to Homa that she could go back to the family without me and I would not have a problem at all, she remained with me. In a way, I admire the Afghans for their “loyalty” but on the other hand, I just feel sorry that they could not understand the concept that everyone can be happy with some adjustments to the situation. Everyone has a choice and I chose to spend time with my team and knowing that I could go back to sleep whenever I wanted to. She has a choice too and nobody will hold it against her if she had chose to be with her friend.

We spent the next 2 nights getting to know each other. I believe it was during this trip that has brought Philip and I closer to each other. I had been so mistaken by his initial attitude but in fact, he is working really hard and proves to be a kind and caring person.

Aliase and Homa were the only persons who speak Dari and English. We had a question and answer session whereby each one would get an opportunity to ask some questions to the other person.

This is Shah Mohammad’s story. He is from Mazar-E- Sharif but is now living in Bamyan. He just got married 2 months ago to his cousin (it is common in Afghanistan where most people are married to their cousins). He is in love with another woman in Mazar who is not related to him but he was pressured by his family members to marry this cousin. He could not refuse as it would tarnish his family’s honour but he could not forget the woman he loves. I asked him whether the woman in Mazar knows that he’s married now and he said that she would have heard it from other people by now.

Hussein Ali is married with 2 children. His family is living in Kabul. But recently he has fallen in love with another woman in Bamyan. He wants to take her as his second wife if the woman’s father allows him to. I asked him whether his first wife would consent to that and he said yes. Phillip asked him whether his first marriage was arranged or by choice. He said it was by choice as he is in love with his first wife, even now.

Aliase doesn’t believe in marriage. He’s an unconventional Afghan having lived in Pakistan for a long time and also worked with foreign workers, which is probably where he gets his western ideas. He has no problem marrying a foreign woman. (A few weeks ago, Aliase informed me that he is now engaged to an Afghan woman, much to my delight!)

Homa is way ahead of time as an Afghan woman. She is a bit of a feminist who refused marriage proposals in order to build her career. She had learned English because she knew it would do her good despite hating the language. She was a religious teacher in Pakistan. Since I work with Homa a lot, I know her ability and her ambitions. To me, she is a role model to the Afghan women, having being able to balance religion, culture and ambitions together. (A year later, Homa got married to an Afghan man in Kabul. She is probably a wonderful mother by now.)

4 Afghans with 4 different lives and perceptions of life. Shah Mohammad’s story made me sad. He is a shy fellow and having coaxed into telling his story was an achievement in itself. In the beginning he was quiet and would hide his face when asked to tell us his story. But subsequently, I think he was relieved to be able to share this with someone.

I remember my father telling me how different people lead different lives depending on where destiny and fate take them. Just like a mouse which is borne in a sack of rice and another which is borne in a sewer. However, I do believe that each one of us is able to change the path of our lives if we want to. But for these Afghans, it would be a long journey ahead of them before they could finally make the life choices they really want.

Shah Mohammad and Hussein Ali both asked me very intelligent questions which I could not give a satisfactory answer to. Shah Mohammad’s question was what do I want in life? I have stopped thinking about what I want in life since I was 17 years old. I don’t even remember when was the last time I have asked myself this question. It isn’t because it’s an unimportant question but it has always been an unanswered one.

I am not able to say what I want because I know the answer would remain immaterial in the next months or years to come. As fickle as you think I might be but sometimes it is just pointless to think about things which do not seem to last forever. But to make my answer simple, I told him, I want to do my job as best as I can, to serve my country eventually, to be a good daughter, wife and mother. It’s all very cliché but those are the few things which I want at some point in my life.

Hussein Ali’s question was why did I come to Afghanistan and if I was asked to serve in Iraq, would I accept it? (I don’t know why I didn’t write down my answer then and now, it is so far away that I don’t remember anymore.) See – these are all very intelligent questions which hardly anybody dares to answer because in the end, Phillip would say that most people are here for the money. We had some arguments about it because I am convinced that not everybody in a UN mission is here for the money. Well, it doesn’t matter what are the incentives behind all of us here as long as we do our jobs.

By the 4th day, everyone was dying to go back to Bamyan. So, anyway, for those 4 days, I can say that it was a good mission. It’s all about learning and getting to know the people better. And also, we have discovered some treasures in Khamard and Saighan. In Khamard we had dried apricots galore and in Saighan, we managed to see some live turkeys!

So, I came back really “charged” for my work until a bombshell was dropped on us. Kabul has sent us a list of national staffs which we would need to recruit within the next 2 weeks in preparation for the coming new phase. There will be a total of more than 200 new national staffs for Central Highlands region. In our civic education department, we will need to recruit a total of 38 new national staffs with 50% men and 50% women. These are the approved positions but we will in actual fact need more than 200 civic educators in order to carry out civic education effectively when the new phase starts in May 1st.

….to be continued in Part VI…..

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